The NBA is finally back — and ahead of the first game of the league’s restart, players from both teams joined coaches and referees to kneel during the national anthem.
The league had to shift to a bubble format in Orlando, Fla., due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests, following the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, players have focused on social justice, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Players from the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz, as well as the game’s referees, made a statement on Thursday prior to tip-off. During a pre-recorded version of the national anthem, everyone on the court took a knee, while some players locked arms, and others raised their fists in the air.
Both the Pelicans and Jazz released statements on the matter.
“The New Orleans Pelicans stand by the ideals of freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest. Collectively with the Utah Jazz, our organization joins the NBA in supporting our players and coaches,” the Pelicans wrote.
The Jazz added: “The Utah Jazz are committed to advancing social justice and stand in support of the players, coaches and staff as they exercise their First Amendment rights, use their voices, their experiences, and their platforms to peacefully express themselves.”
The NBA has had a rule going back to the early 1980s that players must stand for the national anthem. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, anticipating that players would kneel during these games at Walt Disney World, has made clear that he supported peaceful protests.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” Silver told reporters Thursday.
Many players warmed up wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts. Thursday also marked the debut of new jerseys bearing messages that many players chose to have added, such as “Equality” and “Peace.”
NBA players have used their platforms — both in the bubble and on social media — to demand equality and justice. Coaches have also said it is incumbent on them to demand change and educate themselves and others. The pregame actions by the Jazz and the Pelicans were just the start of what is expected to be a constant during the remainder of this season.
“It’s taken a very long time to get this momentum going,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said in a video that aired pregame, a project organized by both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association. “It cannot be lost.”
New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said he appreciated the accidental symmetry that came from the first games of the restarted season coming only hours after the funeral for Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights icon who died July 17 at the age of 80.
Lewis spent most of his life championing equality and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington — the one where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Gentry said he believes this movement, like the one Lewis, helped spark six decades ago, will endure.
“If you talk to some of the younger generation, I think this is here to stay. I really do,” Gentry said. “I have a 20-year-old son and a 22-year-old son, and I know that they feel like this is the most opportune time for us to try to have change in this country.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.